Charles Lewis is a former editor and reporter for the National Post.
Those who have been outraged by the Israeli attack on Gaza appear to know little about the history of warfare: “You started it” isn’t just a childhood retort; it’s also the way adults react, though with much deadlier consequences.
It’s also a reaction that goes right to the root of civilization, one as old as the Old Testament – if not older.
There is no getting away from the horror of what is playing out in Gaza. No one with an ounce of humanity can ignore the thousands of dead, many of whom were children, or the images of now-homeless Gazans holding buckets in the hope of getting a bit of water.
Some might call the Israeli attack righteous; others would label it a deadly overreaction, or even a war crime. Israel was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, when the group murdered around 1,200 and took about 240 hostages, including babies and children. Hamas may have thought this attack would drive Israel to its knees, or perhaps it knew full well what would happen after: there would be massive retribution, and the world would soon forget about the Oct. 7 massacre of Jews and turn on Israel.
But Israel’s actions shouldn’t be a surprise. Remember that Israel is a Jewish state. Even though many of its citizens are secular in outlook, the religious stories that are told come straight out of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament. And the God of the Hebrew Bible rained down his righteous anger throughout Israel’s biblical history. God was angry at sinful mankind so he flooded the Earth, killing everyone but those on Noah’s ark; in Exodus, to free the Jews from Egypt, God killed every first-born Egyptian male child although they were innocent of any crime; and in the Book of Samuel, Saul is told to “go and smite Amalek, utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man, woman and infant” – a passage cited by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A much more recent expression of this kind of wartime vengeance came after 9/11, when the U.S. went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden. An estimated 47,000 Afghan civilians were killed over a two-decade long war, along with many thousands more Afghan military and police.
The Second World War brought perhaps the most notable examples. In December, 1941, the Japanese bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,400 Americans. Japan thought that attack would crush the U.S.’s will to fight back. But by the end of the war, somewhere between 300,000 and 900,000 Japanese civilians were killed as a result of massive firebombing raids, many led by the United States. In one raid alone, in March, 1945, 80,000 Japanese were killed in Tokyo – an attack that had no real military purpose other than to break the will of the citizenry. It was pure revenge. And at least 110,000 were killed after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. By the time of these air raids, the Japanese were starving, and the country’s military was defeated in battle after battle. It was already on its knees.
After Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States. Hitler thought the United States was too weak to defeat the Nazi state. But in July, 1943, British and American bombers set Hamburg on fire. They could have concentrated on the harbours, a military target – but instead, the entire city was burned to the ground, killing at least 40,000 civilians. For the British, that was a matter of justice, to avenge the bombing of their cities. The Americans thought the mass destruction of a major city would snuff out the Germans’ will to fight. It didn’t.
Then, of course, there was Dresden. That bombing had no military value other than to teach the Germans a lesson.
All these attacks were considered necessary to defeat a deadly enemy by any means, just as Israel now sees its mission against Hamas. But today, the results of fury play out in real time. Imagine for a moment if ordinary people in Allied countries could have watched other human beings burning to death on a live-stream, rather than learning about it later in newspaper articles.
The Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 11,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed so far. Bodies are stacked everywhere. And they now join a long list of Germans, Japanese and many others who have sadly reaped a whirlwind of consequences for the actions of those who unleash violence.